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Top Billins: All-star blueliner ignites Heat offence
Chad Billins, soft-spoken gentleman that he is, isn’t one to pump his own tires.
Ask the Abbotsford Heat defenceman to reflect on his electric first half of the season – during which he’s racked up 31 points in 40 AHL games (fifth-most in the league among blueliners), made his NHL debut, and been selected to the AHL all-star game – and he attempts to deflect every shred of credit to his teammates and coaches.
Of course, those same folks will sing Billins’s praises with minimal prompting.
“Chad’s a great player,” enthused John Ramage, a rookie blueliner who has been Billins’s most frequent defence partner this season.
“He’s a really special player with the puck – he can do things not a lot of defencemen can do.”
“He’s a compliment to play with,” chimed in Tyler Wotherspoon, another rookie D who took a turn alongside Billins recently. “He’s a guy who’s always supporting you, he’s talking with you, and he’s helping you the whole way.
“It’s a lot easier and a lot more comforting to play with a guy like that.”
Heat head coach Troy Ward compares Billins’s impact to that of Clay Wilson, a similarly mobile defenceman who was the Heat’s MVP in 2011-12 before moving on to Donbass HC of the Kontinental Hockey League.
“It’s the same thing, just a different version – both of them not very big, but very dynamic,” Ward said. “That’s what Chad’s meant to our team. He’s been as good with the puck as he’s been without it.”
Billins, a 24-year-old Marysville, Mich. native, is generously listed at 5’10”, and his diminutive stature is probably the key factor in why he was never selected in the NHL draft. But he’s found success in pro hockey regardless.
After wrapping up his four years of NCAA hockey at Ferris State University, he landed an AHL contract with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the summer of 2012 and became a key contributor (37 points in 76 regular season games, plus 14 more in 24 playoff dates) on a Griffins squad which won the Calder Cup.
Last summer, seeking a two-way NHL contract, he landed in the Calgary Flames organization, and has quickly established himself.
Billins, an excellent skater who can really hammer the puck, has quarterbacked the Heat’s terrific power play, which ranks third in the AHL with a 22.6 per cent success rate. And the fact that Ward has trusted him to play with rookies like Ramage and Wotherspoon for much of the season, despite the fact that he’s just a sophomore pro himself, is indicative of how his puck-moving skills make the game easier for the youngsters.
“Whoever’s with him gets better defensively,” Ward explained.
The highlight of Billins’s season came on Nov. 5, when he made his NHL debut on behalf of the Flames on the road vs. the Minnesota Wild, with his parents and two younger brothers having flown to Minneapolis for the game.
“It was really special to have them there,” he said. “To be able to have it all come together and be able to play your first NHL game is quite an accomplishment, not just for me, but for my family and all the people who have helped me along the way.”
Billins picked up two assists in two games before being reassigned to Abbotsford, and he knows that if he’s to earn a longer look at the NHL level, his defensive zone coverage must improve.
Ward noted that while 6’7” Heat blueliner Chris Breen is able to have success by wrapping up opponents along the boards, the smaller Billins needs to learn to use timely bumps and box-out techniques to keep foes off-balance.
“Your stick positioning and body positioning is that much more important when you lack the size,” Billins said. “I think the defensive part is what I need to focus on, and hopefully I get another chance (in the NHL).
“You get a taste of it, and it just makes you hungry.”